The Data Engineer on a Mission to Save Tunisia’s Bees
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Tunisia’s agriculture industry generated $614 million in 2017. It needs its pollinators.
By Tafline Laylin
Honey is secondary. Bees, aside from producing the sweet sticky stuff, are an essential ingredient to global agriculture for their pollinating prowess. But climate change and disease strain their ability to do the job. In Tunisia, winter hive losses between 2016 and 2017 climbed to 44 percent.
It’s this buzzing problem that sprung Khaled Bouchoucha, 30, from a professional funk to become what he calls an agripreneur. He has developed an electronic device to measure hive humidity, temperature and more — allowing experts to keep an instant eye on bee health. It’s a sharp turn from a dream to work on airplanes. But his two-year stint fixing Airbuses for a lousy $300 a month “became a hell,” Bouchoucha says. So in 2014, he quit. Two years later, he launched IRIS Technologies.
His interest in apiculture dates back to 2011 when his father was struggling with the 50 hives he owned. The younger Bouchoucha, a student at the National Engineering School of Monastir and slightly drunk on his own smarts, told his father he could design technology to “read” the hive. The idea was scoffed at, and the moment passed. Later, when he decided to become an entrepreneur, the idea resurfaced. “Why not?” he asked himself. The answer could help mitigate collapsing bee populations across the globe.
Bouchoucha and his engineers ultimately developed Smart Bee, a card with sensors that transmit brood temperature and other measurements to the cloud. The information allows vets employed by the company to advise beekeepers on how to optimize hive health. For $137, beekeepers get the card (they need one for every five hives) plus monthly vet visits for five years. After that, they pay a monthly subscription based on the operation’s size. In return, Bouchoucha says honey production, on average, increases by 40 percent and the number of hives by 25 percent. What’s more, the quality of the honey is better because they mitigate the need for medicine or sugar feeding, fetching higher prices and “directly impacting their profit.” But getting beekeepers to invest? Therein lies the challenge.
“It’s very hard to convince beekeepers to use technology,” says Bouchoucha. “It’s easier for me to convince a big microfinance institution than it is to convince a beekeeper.” When institutions are convinced, he adds, “the beekeeper will follow.” Realizing this, he presented his technology to the Agency for the Promotion of Investment in Agriculture (APIA) in 2016. Monia Ben Romdhane, director of the program that assists entrepreneurs, says she was impressed by Bouchoucha’s professionalism and innovative ideas. Consequently, APIA, in tandem with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), selected his company for a three-year pilot project.
The “innovative pilot apiary,” as it’s called, hosts 10 beekeepers throughout Tunisia in an agricultural incubator. IRIS monitors the hives, trains the beekeepers and certifies the resulting honey — all under the scrutiny of a specialist appointed by APIA. “With IRIS Technologies, we aim to design a new approach to national beekeeping,” says Ben Romdhane. “The beekeeper has now become an agricultural promoter, an entrepreneur who evolves in size, capacity and experience.”
Meanwhile, Bouchoucha is out in the public eye, pushing his business forward. On his LinkedIn page, he claims to be one of Tunisia’s most awarded entrepreneurs, a claim supported by honors that include Total’s Startupper of the Year (2016) and the Qatar Friendship Fund’s Tech Entrepreneur of the Year (2015). He’s also skilled at sweet-talking investors out of money. In 2015, he presented to the Tunisian investment fund IntilaQ and Startup Factory, and they gave him nearly $63,000. That same year he scored $45,000 from CAPITALease. Amel Saidane, founder of Tunisian Startups, says startups today can only dream of raising that much money at the seed stage. Of course, there’s an obvious downside: Between them, the investors now own 50 percent of Bouchoucha’s company. “It’s a big mistake that I’m trying to fix,” Bouchoucha admits. Still, the funds are what allowed him to develop his technology.
This budding serial entrepreneur considers himself part of a new generation of young Tunisians “building the country from scratch.”
Three early attempts to build a Smart Bee prototype failed. Bouchoucha explains they sought industrial partners who could use existing components to build their system — and hit a wall each time. Eventually they found CME, a company that worked with IRIS engineers to create a configuration of components that could communicate with their specially designed software. Now, working across the entire value chain, IRIS has a contract to supply Green Bird Trading (in Switzerland) with 10 tons of the honey they certify — 2 tons more, says Bouchoucha, than all of Tunisia exported last year. Throwing back his second espresso, he revels in his accomplishments — though it’s unclear where he gets his drive from.
Bouchoucha was raised, with one younger sister, in a middle-class family that preferred taking the safe route. His father, a retired math teacher, and his mother, who still teaches French, didn’t understand his ambition to become an entrepreneur. “What does it mean, startup? Are you crazy? You’re quitting your job?” Now they get it, and he hopes they are proud of him. Meanwhile, he forges on.
Peter Lappe, his partner with GIZ, says Bouchoucha is driven to the point “where I am worried about his health.” At the moment he’s trying to register his company in Europe and secure 100 Omani beekeepers to attract more international funding. He’s also eyeing emerging markets across Africa, starting with Ethiopia and South Africa. Eventually, Bouchoucha says, he’ll sell IRIS Technologies and develop other companies that use technology to enhance agriculture.
Seemingly aware of the challenges, and hyperfueled by optimism (and caffeine), this budding serial entrepreneur considers himself part of a new generation of young Tunisians “building the country from scratch.”
- Tafline Laylin, OZY Author Contact Tafline Laylin